WRENTHAM — The police officer who allegedly lied about engaging in a gunfight with a man in a passing pickup truck, setting off a massive manhunt in small-town Millis, pleaded not guilty Friday and was released to home confinement on $10,000 bail.
Barely a week ago, Bryan Johnson appeared to be on the cusp of fulfilling a childhood dream, a 24-year-old dispatcher and part-time officer who had been approved for full-time police work and was heading to the academy. Now he is a young man with a GPS monitor, under house arrest.
Clad in a charcoal suit, a stoic Johnson said nothing during his arraignment or as he left court to climb into his parents’ waiting Jeep Cherokee, encircled by reporters. His lawyer declined to shed light on the case but called Johnson a “good kid” devastated by this episode, which left Johnson’s own cruiser bullet-riddled and charred and set SWAT teams and helicopters scouring the area.
“He’s doing as well as can be expected,” lawyer Bradley W. Phipps said of Johnson, who was charged Sept. 4 but whose arraignment was delayed several days for a hospital evaluation. “He’s upset, obviously. He’s somebody with no history. This is not something he’s ever been used to. Certainly his family hasn’t. They’re good people, and they stand behind him.”
Authorities provided no new details during the two-minute arraignment, as Judge Stephen S. Ostrach granted Norfolk Assistant District Attorney Craig Kowalski’s request for bail and home confinement with no objection from Johnson’s lawyer. The only catch was a multihour search for a working charger for the monitoring bracelet, which left Johnson waiting in the bowels of Wrentham District Court even after his father posted bail.
Residents in the comfortable suburb of 8,000 continue to wonder why the clean-cut former Millis High basketball captain allegedly fired three shots into his own cruiser and crashed it amid trees off Forest Road before radioing in an urgent report. Johnson told a dispatcher in that Sept. 2 call that a “white tanned male” in a passing red or maroon pickup had fired a “black-barreled handgun . . . out of the driver-side window,” and that he had spun his cruiser and returned fire, according to a Millis police report.
That came hours after Millis Middle School received a bomb threat, prompting officials to put the school on lockdown, and it drew scores of officers from area departments as well as the State Police, FBI, and federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives for an approximately six-hour search.
Beyond terrifying residents, Johnson’s alleged actions could have imperiled an actual driver of a maroon pickup, said Mike Banks, a neighbor who told the Globe that he heard the gunshots and came out to see Johnson’s Millis Police SUV ablaze amid a stand of slender trees off Forest Road. Banks said he saw a maroon truck drive past and believes the officer might have picked that vehicle when radioing his description of the supposed shooter.
“He really put somebody’s life in jeopardy,” said Banks, a member of the town’s recreation board. He said the cruiser fire had an unnatural glow and appeared to be emanating from the exterior, not the engine block.
Authorities have not said whether Johnson started that fire or whether it resulted from the crash, but the charges he faces include malicious destruction of property as well as unlawful discharge of a firearm, making a false emergency report, and misleading a criminal investigation.
Appointed recently as a full-time officer, Johnson was supposed to enter the police academy later this month and had undergone 350 hours of training to become a part-time officer, officials said last week.
Leaving court, Johnson’s lawyer declined to say whether he expected Johnson — due back Oct. 30 for a hearing — to be exonerated.
Town Administrator Charles Aspinwall said Millis has not yet tallied a final expense for the cruiser and manhunt, but officials estimated overtime and the destroyed Ford Explorer might have cost taxpayers more than $50,000.
The State Police alone spent $8,600 on overtime — for troopers who had to be called in or extended, supplementing those on duty — as well as $2,328 in operating costs for the two helicopters used in the search, spokesman David Procopio said. He said the state would absorb the cost, not bill the community.
Canton Police Chief Kenneth Berkowitz, president of the nearly 50-department mutual-aid organization south and west of Boston known as MetroLEC, said most departments in the region sent one or two specially trained officers to assist with what turned out to be a “fairy-tale call.” Other towns will not bill Millis for what was probably a few hundred dollars of overtime per community, he said.
Berkowitz called Johnson’s alleged actions upsetting but said he was reassured by the professionalism of the response and the speed with which detectives unmasked the hoax.
“It’s reassuring that we could solve something like that so quickly,” he said.